BV-Mudita & Gratitude re Oren Jay Sofer

On the first Monday of each month, Insight Meditation Houston has a tradition of practicing one of the four Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes. These heart-opening practices include Metta (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy), and Upekkha (Equanimity). 

Sympathetic joy refers to our capacity to be favorably inclined towards others, to have appreciation for the joy and beauty in life, and to take pleasure in other people’s happiness and success. This kind of vicarious joy comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it. 

The practice of sympathetic joyhelps to counteract resentment, jealousy or envy that we may feel when we learn about someone else’s good fortune. Known as a “far enemy” of mudita, jealousy usually stems from fear and anxiety about the scarcity of our own circumstances. The ego reacts by worrying that if someone gets what we want, there won’t be enough for us. Sometimes we judge others as less deserving of good fortune than we would be. 

Exuberance is considered to be a mudita’s “near enemy.” Despite a superficial resemblance, it is an overly excited state of grasping at pleasant experiences. If we are too exhilarated, we can overwhelm other people instead of giving them a sense of supportive accompaniment during their moments of enjoyment. 

Sympathetic joy can feel challenging to develop because it implies celebrating the happiness and achievements of others even when we are facing difficulties ourselves. Yet we rob ourselves of well-being when we cannot enjoy others’ achievements. When we think, “That person is more successful and fulfilled than I am,” feelings of separation and resentment arise. Sympathetic joy liberates the heart from the burden of comparing mind.

One motivation for practicing mudita is to cultivate enough contentment to share with others. We might imagine an inner spring of infinite joy. The more we drink from this spring, the more abundant our own happiness becomes, and the easier it is to relish the joy of other people.

To foster this sense of abundance, we can note consciously whatever contributes to our contentment. We might tune in to nature’s beauty, sublime music, spontaneous antics of animals or young children, moments of curiosity, the satisfaction of work well done, deep concentration, or freedom from worry and self-absorption. Our contentment is closely linked to how grateful we feel for life’s many blessings. 

Oren Jay Sofer, a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, points out that gratitude practice can prepare our hearts to open with mudita. I will lead us through an adapted version of his guided meditation, which links gratitude and sympathetic joy.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes.

Center yourself in the experience of being here.

For now, let everything be exactly as it is. 

Bring attention to your contact with the ground until you feel stable and steady.

Now focus on breathing in and out.
Appreciate the blessing of breathing clean air, free of smog and pollution, feeling grateful for having healthy lungs to inhale and exhale. 

Remember with appreciation that we have the conditions and circumstances to be able to stop and sit quietly to connect with our inner experience.

Consider how fortunate we are to have the capacity to be mindful of body sensations, thoughts and emotions. 

Notice with gratitude the richness of being able to breathe, sit still, and be aware.

It’s difficult to be happy for others if we ourselves don’t have a sense of contentment or inner fulfillment.  

Turn attention to your own life—to any blessing, or occasion of happiness or good fortune. 

Appreciate a particular instance of well-being….

Allow that quality of appreciation to become gratitude. 

Cast your mind over your recent experiences, watching the show of people, places and events—noting anything for which you feel grateful. 

Stay aware of your body and heart. 

Choose one particular instance of appreciation. 

Let it be as clear as possible in your mind, either visually or kinesthetically….

As you contemplate this instance gratefully, notice if you feel any sensations in your body or your heart.

Allow yourself to soak in gratitude as fully as possible….

Let the experience fade slowly.

Call to mind another person, place or event for which you feel grateful….

Visualize or have a felt sense of this memory. 

Let it be as clear as possible in your awareness. 

Connect to this memory with gratitude. 

Bring attention to the area of the heart.

Allow the heart to fill with appreciation.

Sense how it nourishes you. 

Now call to mind a friend who is experiencing well-being or success. 

Start with someone for whom it is easy to feel sympathetic joy. 

See this person in your mind’s eye.

Visualize being together in a pleasant place where you both feel at ease. 

Imagine enjoying the setting and each other’s company.

Focus on your friend’s good fortune.

Let your heart open to their happiness and be moved in appreciation, joining them in their experience of happiness.

To align your heart with the quality of sympathetic joy, you can repeat some traditional mudita phrases. Reciting Mudita phrases is part of a purification process that expands the loving capacity of the heart. 

I’m happy that you are happy. 

May your contentment continue.

May your joy increase.

May you enjoy this happiness completely.  

As we purify the heart, the practice can trigger jealousy or a contracted state of feeling self-judgment for not having similar success or happiness. If this happens, notice whatever negative reactions are blocking your ability to rejoice in the contentment of others. With a kind attitude towards yourself, be patient as your heart learns to open and love more fully:

I’m happy that you are happy. 

May your contentment continue.

May your joy increase.

May you enjoy this happiness completely.  

As you connect with your friend’s well-being, it’s possible to sustain a quiet appreciation for their happiness. 

While you contemplate their good fortune, sense your contentment…. 

Let the image of your friend fade.
Notice any residual happiness and allow it to linger.

Note any residual resistance, and let it dissolve, allowing the breath to wash it away.

Breathe into the area of your heart and call to mind a neutral person—perhaps someone in the news who is celebrating good fortune. Or with the understanding that humans share a universal wish to experience joy, you might choose a person who smiled at you in passing on the street or in a store. When you have an image or felt sense of this neutral person, practice silently with the Mudita phrases:

I’m happy that you are happy.

May your contentment continue.

May your joy increase.

May you enjoy this happiness completely.  

With a deep exhalation, let go of the image or felt sense of the neutral person. 

Breathe into the area of your heart and call to mind someone who is difficult for you to love. That person may be experiencing a period of good fortune. In this challenging stage of developing sympathetic joy, our goal is to let go of judgments about who deserves success and happiness. Focusing on an image or felt sense of this person with whom you have difficulties, practice with the Mudita phrases: 

I’m happy that you are happy. 

May your contentment continue.

May your joy increase.

May you enjoy this happiness completely.

With a deep exhalation, let go of the image or felt sense of this one who is difficult for you. Breathe into the area of your heart. 

Notice how the heart is affected by practicing sympathetic joy. 

Finally, turn attention back to your own life—to gratitude for the blessings that you have recalled and contemplated. 

Exhaling, open your eyes at your own rhythm. 

Reconnect with our sangha, grateful for this community that supports our meditation practice.